Chinese engineers are making progress with the development of the core module of the country’s permanent space station, which is set for launch as early as 2018.
According to a report by China’s state-managed Xinhua news agency, engineers have already developed robotic arms for the core module, to be named Tianhe-1, Chinese for galaxy or Milky Way.
The robotic arms, which have been described as China’s latest space intelligence robotic achievement, are over ten metres long and consist of seven motorised joints. A source from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) told Xinhua that the arms will have no fixed ends, allowing them to crawl around the spacecraft like two giant inchworms.
The arms will be controlled via an intelligent route planning system and will navigate around using in-built cameras to unload payload and assist with precise manoeuvring of the core module.
Work on the robotic arms began in 2007.
Building its own permanent space station is part of China’s ambition to become a major space superpower. The country has previously operated a temporary space station, Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1, which hosted three astronauts for 15 days in 2013.
The permanent space station will consist of multiple modules that would be attached to the core module after 2018. China hopes for the station to be completed by 2022, two years before the foreseen end-of-operations date for the International Space Station (ISS) - a joint project by the USA, Japan, Russia, the European Space Agency and Canada.
The ISS partners have not announced any firm plans beyond 2024. Suggestions have been made about leaving low-Earth-orbit exploration to the private sector, while the government-funded players could focus on establishing a lunar colony or on asteroid and Mars exploration. Russia, disheartened by the economic sanctions following its invasion of Crimea, said it may consider building its own space station. In every case, China may become the only country operating a low-Earth-orbit space station by the mid-2020s.
China insists that its space programme is for peaceful purposes. However, the US Defense Department has warned that China's increasing space capabilities could enable it to prevent its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.